Lawmakers restart push for new Latino museum in D.C.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 28, 2013. SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

WASHINGTON A national Latino American history museum would be created in one of the oldest buildings on the National Mall under legislation lawmakers have reintroduced, and an advocacy group on Wednesday urged Congress to pass the bill this year.

Two years ago, a presidential commission called for the creation of a Smithsonian American Latino Museum. But the effort stalled last year in Congress. The group, Friends of the American Latino Museum, has begun raising money for an advocacy effort to urge Congress to authorize it.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have reintroduced the measure in the Senate. In the House, California Rep. Xavier Becerra is the lead sponsor, along with Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

"We're looking for a home for our history, for our culture, for our contributions to this country," Becerra said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The California congressman, who serves on the Smithsonian's governing board, said the 18 facilities of the world's largest museum and research complex can only show a small fraction of their approximately 140 million objects.

"We want America to see who we are," Becerra said. "But if we're going to be housed in the dark recesses of some storage container because there's not enough room for all that, that's not enough."

The legislation calls for the creation of the new museum in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, which has been shuttered for years due to structural problems.

Actress Eva Longoria has been a leading proponent of the museum effort, along with producer Emilio Estefan, Rosario Dawson and other entertainers.

Estuardo Rodriguez Jr., the newly appointed executive director of the museum advocacy group, said supporters would have to raise at least $325 million in private donations to build the museum if it's authorized by Congress. The group has held a town hall meeting at Rice University in Texas and is planning another at the University of Southern California to build support nationwide.

In 1994, a Smithsonian report entitled "Willful Neglect" found Hispanics were the only major contributor to American civilization not permanently recognized at the museum complex.

Ros-Lehtinen said the contributions of more than 50 million Hispanic Americans deserve further attention.

"We've been part of America's history because we are Americans since our republic's founding," she said.

The museum group also unveiled a new painting as a poster to symbolize the effort. It was created by artist Ana Maria Villegas, an immigrant who lives in Coral Springs, Fla. She said the image of a young Latino with a guitar and American flag in the background was inspired by seeing her daughters integrate their Mexican heritage with American culture.

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